Friday, February 6, 2015

Religious Studies and History: two views of the same thing

This morning, while sipping my first caffeine of the day, I sat quietly looking out my kitchen window at bare tree limbs, blue sky, scattered clouds and snow.  Meditating I guess, or perhaps just thinking. Anyway, for no particular reason I began to think about the study of religion through two different lenses. Most universities in Canada have Departments of Religion, or Religious Studies (not all, my own doctoral alma mater the University of Guelph does not), and they graduate individuals who study religion in all its aspects.  These departments are the successors of theology departments. Again, most but not all, universities in Canada had church origins. For example, the University of Toronto began as an Anglican school, the University of Windsor was Catholic, Queen's was Presbyterian and my undergrad and MA school McMaster was Baptist.  When the provincial governments dangled 30 bits of silver before each institution they gave up their church control and secularized.  (One of the last holdouts was Waterloo Lutheran which did not accept the money until very late  in the game and transmogrified into Wilfred Laurier - maybe so they didn't have to change their monogrammed linen).

After secularizing, these universities kept a church college or colleges to act as a seminary in most cases, but suspended their rights to grant full Arts or Sciences degrees. In the place of theology they tended to institute departments of Religion or Religious Studies, where religion would be examined in a social scientific manner.

About ten or so years ago, I faced the prospect of no work, and saw that my school, the University of Guelph did not offer much in the way of the study of religion.  So I came up with the idea of a World Religions' course in the History department, as I am an historian. This was accepted, and was structured and taught through an historical, not a social scientific view of religion. While religious studies courses and textbooks include the historical development of religion, this is not their central focus. For my course history came first, and as a social/cultural historian, the complex dance or duet of religion and society as it changed over time was the focus.

While searching for a textbook to complement the course material, I found that most were written by graduates of religious studies programmes and not appropriate therefore for an historical approach. I did find one finally, written by one of the pioneers of the study of world religions, the late Ninian Smart. I have yet to find another that does as well as his 1999 second edition. The many, many world religions' texts approach religion overall and in particular cases from the religious studies focus, while I remain an unrepentant historian first and foremost.

So what is the difference?  Well in the religious studies' approach, presentism reigns supreme -that is, a particular religion is presented as it exists today (well, today being the rough time it took to produce the book).  This involves the beliefs, rituals, architecture, art, geographical spread, ethnicity or cross-ethnicity, and a section on history.  From what I can see in their books, they are primarily sociological studies with some anthropology thrown in, spiced with a dash of history.  In the approach I take, that of the historian, I emphasize and focus on the story - the history of religion in general and the particular religion being presented.  This involves the same facets found in religious studies, but with an emphasis on change within social context.  This assumes that some aspects do change and some do not and this too is a matter to be discussed and studied.

This approach is, I am sure, a disappointment to some of my students as they expect to learn about, memorize and repeat on tests and exams the rituals and customs of people of different religions along with their theologies.  What they get is very little of that and lot of how and perhaps why, religion functions within different social settings at different periods of history and how and why change occurs.

The problem I have had with the religious studies approach is the way in which each religion tends to be hermetically sealed off from every other and the implication that the views and beliefs and practices of ordinary followers mirror that of religious professionals.

I think I stress ritual and belief too lightly and will work to change that, but am convinced that the study of the place of religion in life itself is and should be the primary focus, not the doctrine or dogma or ritual practices.